The U.S. Coast Guard is seeking to increase recruitment numbers after a pandemic-induced drop left the expanding service understrength. (Michael S. Lockett / Juneau Empire)

The U.S. Coast Guard is seeking to increase recruitment numbers after a pandemic-induced drop left the expanding service understrength. (Michael S. Lockett / Juneau Empire)

Crewing the cutters: Pandemic complicated recruiting, says Coast Guard

Distancing and not being able to get face to face with folks didn’t help numbers.

Closed schools and mitigation protocols have complicated recruitment for the U.S. Coast Guard over the two years of the pandemic, said members of the recruitment apparatus, even as other services are dealing with their own paucity of recruits.

While that has hurt numbers, the Coast Guard is also looking at increasing the quality of recruits, seeking people with more life experience or technical skills, said Cmdr. Andrea Smith, executive officer of Coast Guard Recruiting Command.

“We are definitely, in comparison to pre-COVID numbers, we are not doing as well,” Smith said in a phone interview. “Meeting a Coastie is still the best recruiting tool for us and that is increasingly difficult because of the pandemic.”

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The problem is exacerbated in Alaska, said Chief Petty Officer Colin Rankin, made more complicated by the sheer vastness of the state and the small size of the Coast Guard. With 43,000 active-duty servicemembers, the armed service, which falls under the Department of Homeland Security, only has about 320 recruiters spread out to about 56 recruiting officers, Smith said.

“Alaska, until you really experience it, is just a huge place. People are spread throughout the state,” Rankin said in a phone interview. “That’s definitely our biggest challenge. We have a tiny office. There’s three of us and that’s not going to change in the near future.”

Smith said the service has set 4,200 new joins as the target for the 2022 recruiting year. That’s a significant increase from the past several years of pandemic, according to numbers provided by Coast Guard Recruiting Command.

“We are below strength right now,” Smith said. “We’re trying to identify which levers we can pull, what we can do.”

Rankin, who’s been the recruiter-in-charge for Recruiting Office Anchorage, Alaska’s only recruiting office, for more than two years, said the mitigation measures in place forced them to alter their strategy, adopting more digital methods of reaching potential recruits, as well as emphasizing the service’s unique characteristics, which set the nation’s primary maritime security and search and rescue organization apart from its Department of Defense counterparts.

“We also have unique incentives in Alaska. We can bring people back to Alaska for the first duty station if they desire. Alaska is a massive area of responsibility. We can bring people back to District 17,” Rankin said. “I think about one-third of them return or are interested in returning which makes the incentive, in my opinion, fantastic.”

The Coast Guard also offers other incentives across the service, Smith said, such as simple joining bonuses and bonuses for critical specialties such as culinary specialists or operation specialists. Other armed services also offer incentives, with the Army recently raising its cap on a join bonus for critical skills specialties. The Coast Guard is offering bonuses between $2,000 and $20,000 in bonuses for joining under certain circumstances, Smith said, some of which may be stacked.

The Coast Guard is also actively seeking to recruit people who have more life experience than simply graduating high school, including people with college experience or experience in related fields.

“We offer an enlistment bonus for every member that signs up. We offer special bonuses for certain skills,” Smith said. “Depending on the need, there may be bonuses to ship on certain days or for certain classes.”

Recruitment is especially important as the Coast Guard seeks to expand its force, Smith said.

“The service is growing. We’re bringing new cutters. We’re modernizing our service,” Smith said. “It’s a phenomenal time to be joining with regard to the resources and assets you will get to serve on.”

Alaska’s sparse population means that recruiters here don’t sign up a ton of new joins in absolute numbers every year, Rankin said, but the percentage of Alaskans who serve is still very high. The largest portion of recruits comes from the Matanuska-Susitna Valley area, Rankin said.

“I think a big thing about recruiting in Alaska is the quality of applicants we send to boot camp. There’s some really smart kids we send,” Rankin said. “Oftentimes, we get a lot of rescue swimmers – 30-40% of people who come through the door want to be rescue swimmers.”

Number of new Coast Guard recruits per year

Recruiting Year ‘22: 904 new members hired (year-to-date)

Recruiting Year ‘21: 3,248 new members hired

Recruiting Year ‘20: 2,812 new members hired

Recruiting year ‘19: 2,815 new members hired

Recruiting Year ‘18: 3,751 new members hired

Recruiting year ‘17: 4,087 new members hired

• Contact reporter Michael S. Lockett at (757) 621-1197 or mlockett@juneauempire.com.

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